HBO Max has finally launched, and WarnerMedia has entered the streaming wars with a solid opening day. HBO Max marks the second streaming service launch of 2020–with the forgettable Quibi launching mid-April. Additionally, NBCUniversal’s Peacock service arrived recently with a soft launch–going nationwide in July. However, HBO Max is the latest service to reach everyone, as long as you have ways of watching it that aren’t Roku or through Amazon. How does the new service stack up against the competition though?
HBO Max combines HBO programming with other content providers under the WarnerMedia banner like DC, TCM, Adult Swim, CNN, and more. Deals have also been struck with Studio Ghibli and Crunchyroll. Alongside all of these existing movies and TV series, original content is available on the service. At launch, six originals–one documentary and five series–are available, and there are many more to come. HBO Max costs $15 a month, and the first seven days are free. If you’re an AT&T customer, you’ll get access to HBO Max for free.
The front page of the service will feel very familiar for some people–because it’s essentially the same UI as HBO Go and HBO Now with a purple color scheme. It’s a straight-to-the-point interface laid out in easy-to-read sections. You can put together a list of things you want to watch and continue watching your favorite series. Between using HBO Max on iOS, Android, desktop, and on a smart TV, the My List and Continue Watching sections were consistent. Movies and shows didn’t disappear from these lists when jumping between platforms. Also, you can download movies and TV episodes to watch offline. The latter sections are recommendations, like featured movies, HBO series, the HBO Hubs section, family viewing, etc. It’s a very simple yet effective layout.
Other familiarities include jumping ahead to the next episode as the credits for the previous one roll. However, unlike in other streaming service apps, you cannot skip the intro of each show, so get ready to manually fast forward through that super-long Game of Thrones intro every time you fire up a new episode. On occasion, before what you’re attempting to watch begins, there is a 30 second ad spot for what’s coming to HBO in the near future. It’s annoying, but luckily, it doesn’t happen often (unlike in previous HBO streaming apps, where it would play before every single thing you streamed), and you can fast forward through it.
HBO Max’s Day One original series offerings are a tad lackluster. Three of the six debut shows are geared toward children: The Not Too Late Show With Elmo, Looney Tunes Cartoons, and the competition series Craftopia. Also launched on Day One are the documentary On The Record, voguing competition series Legendary, and Anna Kendrick’s series Love Life. While all the series are high-quality, there’s nothing here that will get people “talking around the water cooler.” At this time, HBO Max doesn’t have a tentpole original series to get people to sign up. Streaming services need a balance of good original and licensed content to succeed, and right off the bat, HBO Max is missing the mark, as many viewers won’t be coming to the service to watch Elmo’s talk show (Although they should. It’s very fun). Originally, the Friends Reunion Special was going to be ready for launch, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed the release.
While the Day One offerings are underwhelming, the future looks bright for HBO Max, with plenty more original content coming. This summer will see the launch of Doom Patrol Season 2 and Expecting Amy, the documentary about comedian Amy Schumer. The fall will see the aforementioned Friends Reunion Special arrive, and beyond that, there’s more Adventure Time, an Aquaman animated series, a Green Lantern show, a Gremlins animated series, and much more.
It has plenty of movies to keep you busy
Regardless, there is plenty of other content on HBO Max, most of which we didn’t know about before launch. The number of movies on the service is staggering. What sets HBO Max apart from other services is that there is much more high-quality content to choose from compared to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. There’s the Turner Classic Movies section, along with Criterion Collection to watch, on top of what the HBO network already offers. There is still a decent selection of popcorn-popping content. Sure, you could spend an evening watching the classic films The 400 Blows or Eraserhead, but you could also watch Jason Voorhees go to space in Jason X. Do you like Charlie Chaplin, Godzilla, or Harry Potter? You’re good to go. In addition, HBO Max has a solid back catalog of TV series, including Friends, Big Bang Theory, Doctor Who, and plenty of HBO TV series.
Video curation missing
However, one thing is noticeably missing. Where’s the video curation? During the first HBO Max press event back in October, a portion of the presentation was dedicated to curation. It was something that set HBO Max apart from the pack. Instead of spending time searching through the vast catalog, you can watch a video of a celebrity suggesting something for you to watch. During this demo, actor Zac Efron recommended The Exorcist as his “go-to scary movie.” (Just a quick note, The Exorcist is not on HBO Max at this time.) Anyway, celebrity curation is not a new thing–Shudder has been doing it since its inception–but the video recommendation was something new. On Day One for HBO Max, video curation–or any curation at all–is nowhere to be found.
One other aspect of HBO Max that we saw at the press event that’s been scaled down was the number of hubs on the main page. Currently, nine hubs exist on HBO Max, and none of them focus on original content: HBO, DC, Sesame Workshop, TCM, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, and Looney Tunes. What’s missing from what we glimpsed in the October presentation is Max Originals, TNT, CNN Original Series, truTV, and TBS. The content from those missing categories is on the service; they just don’t have their own hubs. It’s a bit of a misstep but not the end of the world. Now, you have to click three more times than normal to find United Shades of America instead of clicking CNN Originals on the hub.
You can’t use Amazon and Roku to watch, for now
The biggest fumble HBO Max has coming out of the gate is accessibility. While there are many different ways to watch HBO Max–from phones to computers to video game consoles and casting–two huge players are missing on Day One: Roku and Amazon Fire. These are the two most-used streaming platforms, which have a combined 33% market share. According to USA Today, if you subscribed to HBO Now on Roku or Amazon, you will not be able to access HBO Max, as HBO and the two previously mentioned platforms couldn’t come to terms for launch. There is currently no deal in place. This is a major problem for most people, and it reminds me of Apple TV+’s launch, which was limited–but at least it had deals in place with Roku and Amazon.
Amid the Day One fumbles, HBO Max is better than expected, but for completely different reasons. Streaming services push original series as an important selling point. And while the future looks great for the service’s original programming, Day One is a little bit of a letdown. However, this is a go-to destination for movies and TV series–especially if you love HBO programming. It’s more of a snapshot of what Netflix used to be, before the avalanche of original content took over and many movies and shows you love got spread around to other streaming services, and because of that, it is worth the price of admission, even if $15 a month is a little steep.
Mat Elfring tested out HBO Max on iOS, Android, Smart TV, and desktop.
Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot’s parent company
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